For the past couple of weeks my wife and I have been discussing our future plans and dreams. We have this discussion at least once a year, although this time it’s been different.
Over the years we have tried to simplify our life. This has included our marriage, parenting, house, schedules, and in August our TV watching.
We believe that if you can keep things simple, you can experience more enjoyment in life.
There are many times in our goals and dreams discussion where we have the illusion that attaining some level of status or living in certain areas of the country will provide whatever is missing in our life and relationship. As if living on the coast in the Caribbean or working completely online would provide new levels of happiness in our lives.
The reason our most recent discussions have been different is the realization that regardless of where we live or what we do with our time, our baseline happiness level (or life satisfaction level, or pleasure level, etc.) remains roughly constant. While new scenery or career challenges may provide a spike in happiness, we’ll return to our previous level after the newness wears off.
This idea is confirmed by Philip Brickman’s research on lottery winners and their levels of happiness. He and his colleagues found that within as little as a month, lottery winners returned to their base levels of well-being. If they were unhappy before winning, they will remain so. Conversely, they discovered that accident victims who became paraplegic often are as happy as they were prior to the accident within as little as a year after the accident.
So regardless of where we live and what we do, we will largely be the same as we are now. This idea can be sobering or freeing. To me, it’s freeing. This frees me from chasing the proverbial carrot. From making a life goal or dream an end-all-be-all.
Now my wife and I are focusing more of our discussions on who we are at this moment. We are discussing ways we can increase our baseline levels or well-being both now and in the future.
While we still are making plans for our dreams, we are focusing on our dreams and the journey towards them!
Robert Pirsig, in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, describes joining a group of elderly Zen monks mountain climbing in the Himalayas. Although he was the youngest member of the group, he was the only one who struggled – eventually giving up while the others made it to the peak. He was so focused on reaching the peak that he became overwhelmed by what lay ahead and was unable to enjoy the climb. He lost his desire and strength to keep going.
Meanwhile, the monks also focused on the peak, but only to make sure they were staying on course. Knowing they were heading in the right direction allowed them to focus their attention and enjoy the steps along the way.
Goals and dreams are still important, but they must be kept in the right perspective. Goals and dreams are means, not just ends.

Here’s to the journey! Where are you headed?

*Adapted from Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar
Photo courtesy Hamed Saber

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